"What's Hoppin' John?" I asked my server.
"It's black-eyed peas and rice," he responded matter-of-factly.
"Is it good?" I wondered.
"If you like black-eyed peas and rice it is," he quipped.
That was just one of the many service snags that got in the way of a perfectly good dinner at Stonetown, the latest restaurant from the Angie's restaurant group. Billed as Southern fusion, the restaurant is a sort of hybrid between Angie's Soul Café, Zanzibar Soul Fusion, and Jezebel's Bayou.
Other issues included no appetizer side plates, dishes and empty beer bottles left to linger on the table, and a food dump-and-run, when the server was too busy to explain what he just delivered at three mph. A nearby party of six, clearly miffed by the long delay between courses, literally threw in their napkins and marched out of the restaurant.
Owner Akin Alafin, during a follow-up call, admitted that the restaurant was ill prepared for the unexpected Friday night rush. Being new to the downtown market, he discovered, has both its pros and cons. He'll do a better job tracking major concerts, games and events going forward, he promised.
But I didn't call just to bitch; actually, I wanted to compliment him. You see, most restaurants that find themselves that deep in the weeds simply start churning out food at a frenzied clip, consequences (and quality) be damned. Not here. Though we did have to wait longer than we would have liked for our dishes, when they finally did arrive, they were just as they should be. Most diners will forgive slow service at a new restaurant, but few will tolerate poor food.
For starters we had shrimp and lobster fritters ($9.95), which were a dead ringer for an order of crispy arancini from a fine Italian restaurant. Beneath a crunchy, golden brown surface was cheesy risotto rice and bits of shrimp and, perhaps, lobster. I would have preferred a lighter, less leaden batter on the fried crawfish tails ($9.95), but we still managed to disappear most of them.
Stonetown's fried chicken wasn't quite as good as Angie's, but it was still better than most. It can be ordered straight-up in the Fried Yardbird dinner ($14.95), which includes a wing, breast, leg and thigh, creamy "gritz" and an additional side. Our fried bird came perched atop small, round waffles ($12.95) that were as red as lipstick thanks to food color (on the menu they're billed as red velvet waffles). The color didn't affect the flavor, and when combined with the moist fried chicken, melted butter, maple syrup and hot sauce, we wouldn't have cared if they were green.
Thick-cut pork chops are all you see lately, but Stonetown makes a convincing argument for the return of the thin chop. Here they come two to an order ($13.95) and are lightly breaded, fried and smothered with gravy and onions. For sides we enjoyed a prototypical mac and cheese – meaning on the bland side – and the aforementioned Hoppin' John, which is great... if you like black-eyed peas and rice.
We had no service issues during a mid-week lunch visit. Our server was patient, informative and attentive, and our dishes came out of the kitchen with all deliberate speed. You can't go wrong with fried catfish at any of the Angie's eateries – and Stonetown is no exception. The tender fried fingers ($7.95) are paired with a zesty remoulade for dipping.
On the recommendation of our server we ordered the red fish tacos ($11.95), and it was the only dud out of two meals. The fish tasted muddier than a mudpie and no amount of slaw or sauce could mask it. Gator sliders ($10.95/3), on the other hand, were the surprise hit of the meal. Fresh gator meat, I was later told, is passed through a grinder, mixed with seasonings, and formed into small patties. The thin burgers are tucked into butter-toasted brioche buns, topped with sautéed onions and a dollop of spicy mayo. Get them.
Stonetown is an oddly laid out restaurant, doubtless thanks to the original tenant. A massive bar (that serves no draft beer) consumes the bulk of the space, while proper dining is resigned to a small front space and a cramped back room. On that Friday night, we walked through what seemed like a football field of open space only to be shoehorned into a tiny two-top, where I spent half the night preventing my chair from pounding my neighbor's.
Other minor blemishes – missing switch plates, unadorned floating wall shelves, blinding industrial lights – prevent Stonetown from matching its price points. But knowing the new guard at Angie's, I'm confident they'll get there.